Elephants learning to secretly migrate at night and chat about safety

Public Domain | Elephants are flocking to safe places, like Chobe National Park in Botswana shown here.

We may be killing them at an abysmal rate, but these smart and social creatures seem to have a plan.

The elephant situation is just shameful. These smart and social creatures are the tragic victims of man’s inexplicable lust for tusks. While there were possibly more than 2 million in Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, their numbers now hover in the lower end of the 100,000s. The population of savannah elephants dropped by 144,000 members from 2007 to 2014 alone.

While elephants are incredibly smart, they are sadly not much of a match against poachers and the weapons they use, from A47s to cyanide-laced watermelons. But as it turns out, they are still finding incredible ways to outsmart the poachers nonetheless.

Kanika Saigal writes for Quartz how threatened elephants that live in dangerous countries are deciding to migrate to safe places, like the Chobe National Park in northern Botswana – a sprawling 4,517 square mile (11,700 square kilometers) sanctuary where elephants can live their elephant lives without having to worry about being shot from a helicopter.

“Botswana is now home to roughly 130,000 elephants – a third of Africa’s entire elephant population,” Saigal writes. “This is an increase of over 30,000 elephants in Botswana since 1995 against a backdrop of declining numbers across the continent.”

Which of course begs the questions: How do they get there and how do they know where to go in the first place?

The short answer is that they have figured out to travel safely and they communicate their lessons to one another along the way.

“Elephants are using well-known migratory routes into Botswana to flee threats from neighboring countries,” says Mark Hiley, cofounder of the UK-based nonprofit National Park Rescue. “The systematic movement of elephants into Botswana is linked to their survival.”

Amazingly, researchers have discovered that some elephants in sub-Saharan Africa have started to travel at night – which would be otherwise very unusual for an elephant – to avoid poaching, which happens during the day. But they also seem to be sharing survival tips with one another as well. Saigal writes:

Indeed, it’s not just where elephants are going that’s of interest to researchers, but when, and how they’re communicating about it within groups, between herds, and across generations.

It appears that elephants have developed a sophisticated system of communication. For the sake of brevity I generically call it "chatting" in the title above, but they have a complicated array of messaging methods; gestures, sounds, infrasound, and even chemical secretions.

“Through various means, elephants can suggest that the group moves on, that they sense danger, or that they are in distress,” says Iain Douglas-Hamilton, founder of Save the Elephants.

Saigal cites cases in which elephants who have endured severe conflict with humans remain wary of them and communicate that fear to their offspring and the generations that follow. And they can even tell the difference between various groups of humans to distinguish friends and foes.

“For instance, elephants in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, near the Tanzanian border in the south, have shown the ability to distinguish between the voices and scents of potentially threatening spear-carrying Maasai warriors with those of less threatening farming tribes,” Saigal writes.

The Quartz piece goes into much more detail about research, technology, and the hope of better understanding these animals who are suffering enormously thanks to human folly. But the quick takeaway here? Elephants have a few tricks up their sleeves and seem to have a plan. Now if they could just learn how to lace a poacher's lunch with cyanide.

For more, read the whole piece at Quartz.

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